We are squashed in an auto-rickshaw, struggling to breathe and trying to ignore the headaches that are pounding insistently inside our skulls. The traffic is at a complete standstill, the fumes from every kind of vehicle and the dry dust of the street poison the air and the beeping is incessant and pointless. It's hot. It takes us nearly an hour to travel the eight kilometres to the river, then we get out and walk. The auto driver resignedly heads back into the stifling crush. The traffic here is as renowned as the reason it exists.
Ancient, spiritual, commercial, sacred, filthy Varanasi.
The city of water. The city of death. The holy city.
Almost as many well dressed tourists, necks bowed under the weight of thousand dollar cameras, as mourning families easily identified by their shaved heads and white robes. A place to come to find death. Or yourself. This city is a lot of things to a lot of people. A temple, a cemetery, a stage for every pretentious fantasy, a photo opportunity, a spiritual oasis, an obligatory stop on the tourist trail. A place to sit and watch every face of humanity living their different lives.
Perch on the banks of the river, like the city has for a thousand years, and observe the fragments of stories swirling around you. Every emotion is there, waiting for you. And they'll find you every time you step outside. In the eyes of the grubby child tugging on your shirt and your heart. In the fat yogi contorting his body into impossible postures. In the wiry men hawking row boat tours even under the piercing midday sun, in the faces of those mourning families and in the mono tonal voices of the drug addled men narrating their grief to tourists for a couple of dollars. In the starving dogs and the shockingly naked holy men and the colourful buildings rambling all the way down to the water. In the beauty of the river at sunrise and dusk on the balcony with a cold beer. In every conversation with somebody during which you have to wonder if they want your money or just a chat.
It can get quite exhausting, all this feeling. Then you should go get food.
At night the streets and riverbanks ring out with the sounds of every kind of vendor who know that the days are too hot for anything but water. You can buy roasted peanuts, flowers, jewellery, art, tea, noodles, samosa, a conversation with a sadhu, popcorn, ice-cream, a blessing... And veggie burgers. Varanasi veggie burgers, unlike anything you would expect.
Street food carries a special risk in Varanasi. It's a dirty city, it's a touristy city and, most of the time, it's very hot. Be sensible and choose wisely. Of course, what is life without risk? The stall that us our burgers was almost empty when we arrived- our growling stomachs and potentially explosive tempers swiftly silenced any concerns our rational brains may have had. We sat on the thin wooden bench, held up three fingers, and waited. There was a young Indian couple, tourists as well, and another Australian, skinny and pale in a singlet; the sort of person who could be swept into the insanity and indifference of the city and lose himself to it. He gobbled his burger and took off into the dark streets. Then more customers arrived and the vendor flew his arms around like a conductor at crescendo to keep up.
Street food in India is never just about the food.
The burgers were good, when we got them. Satisfying, greasy, weird but good.
VARANASI VEGGIE BURGERS
This recipe has a few steps, but they are all quite simple. You can make the noodles and patties ahead of time and the rest is simply slicing vegetables. I used this chowmein recipe, with baby peas instead of beans and no capsicum, and this burger recipe. Of course, these are both adaptable to your preferred tastes.
Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat with a few tablespoons of oil.
Start frying the veggie patties and when they only have a couple of minutes to go, fry the burger buns lightly on the cut sides. If you made your chowmein ahead of time, reheat it now.
Place a veggie patty on the base of the bun. Nestle on grape on top. Layer the onion and tomato slices, then tops with a generous spoonful of chowmein. Drizzle over some curd and tomato sauce.
Serve with extra curd and tomato sauce on the side.
Weird, but good.
vegetable oil, for frying
4 soft white burger buns
1 recipe chowmein
1 recipe veggie burgers (shaped but uncooked)
4 green grapes
1 red onion, sliced
2 medium tomatoes, sliced
plain yoghurt or curd